Think about your typical morning routine: Your alarm clock wakes you, you grab a cup of coffee or a slice of toast, maybe flip on the TV for the day’s news. Later, you’ll brush your teeth before heading to work in your car. In just that short scenario, you would have already used eight patented inventions.

Inventors have advanced our nation considerably, and they’re still breaking new ground today. Our neighborhood is no exception – it’s filled with innovative minds, ready to bring us that next thing we just can’t live without. Over the past decade, Dallas has averaged about 735 patents per year, according to the United States Patent and Trademark website. It’s safe to say that around here, there’s a steady stream of bright ideas.

But it takes more than just a “eureka” moment to be a successful inventor. “There are a lot of technicalities and legalities involved, and it ends up teaching you a lot about the U.S. patent laws,” says David Gates, a Preston Hollow business owner and inventor.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says inventors can expect to pay at least $4,000 to get their patents granted, and on average, most end up paying more in the neighborhood of $5,000-$10,000. And getting that patent doesn’t just take money; it also takes time – about 22 months to be exact.

After all that, inventors still aren’t guaranteed their product will ever see the light of day. Only 2 to 3 percent of inventions actually ever make it to the marketplace, according to Entrepreneur magazine.

But that’s not stopping these neighborhood inventors, who have original ideas they believe could be the next big thing.

We’ll let you be the judge.

THE INVENTOR: Tomima Edmark

THE LIGHT BULB: Edmark was at the movies when a patron sporting a French twist caught her eye. “For some reason, the light bulb just went off, and I wondered if you could turn a ponytail inside out.” She tinkered with idea, eventually creating a prototype made from a circular knitting needle and some masking tape. Sure enough, she had found a simple way to turn a ponytail inside out.

THE JOURNEY: Edmark says a small group of girlfriends were her first test market. “They all loved it, so I knew I had a great idea.” She got the idea patented and by 1992 was running a successful side business. “I advertised in hair magazines, and I had a P.O. Box where I’d collect all the orders that were sent in,” she says. “I was working at IBM, and I thought I was just going to do this to earn some extra money on the side.” All that changed, she says, when she learned the power of publicity. By working with a publicist, she was able to score a spot in a national beauty magazine, which launched Topsy Tail to a whole new level. “It ran in the magazine, and three weeks later I had $100,000 worth of orders.” Today, the product has sold in the millions. “I don’t think anybody expects that it’s going to be that level of instant success.”

THE FUTURE: Since creating Topsy Tail, Edmark has patented a handful of other inventions – including a hat designed to protect hairdos – but none have matched the success of Topsy Tail. She sold that original invention to a major hair accessory company last year and is now focusing her energy on two online businesses: HerRoom.com, which sells bras, panties and sleepwear for women; and HisRoom.com, which sells men’s undergarments. “This is my passion now,” she says. “I’m much happier doing this than inventing new products. Inventing a product is very difficult because you’re required to have a retailer to buy your product, and sure, they’re all clamoring for your product when it’s hot. But it’s a lot harder to secure that shelf space when your product is mature. I like running this business because it allows me to be creative, and I’m my own retailer.”

THE INVENTORS: David Gates and Monte Morrish

THE LIGHTBULB: Most days, Gates is busy running his business, Cesium Communications. “I think I’m one of the last CEOs who is equally comfortable sitting in a boardroom or climbing a 400-foot tower that needs to be repaired,” he jokes. But when he’s not in boardrooms or climbing towers, he’s likely in hiking boots, exploring the wilderness in one of his custom off-road Jeeps. It was this passion that led to his invention. Like most off-road vehicles, Gates’ Jeeps have spare-tire brackets attached to a spare tire on the vehicles’ exterior that are also used to hold gas containers. Gates says he saw no problem with this until he had a close call. “I was driving cross-country to do some off-roading, and the product I was using nearly failed while I was driving down the highway,” he recalls. “What went through my mind at that moment was, ‘Oh my God, what if you spilled high octane fuel on the freeway and there was a van full of children behind you?’ It could be very bad.”

THE JOURNEY: Gates had a basic concept for a safer bracket, but needed help building it. That’s when Morrish came on board. “He is one of the best metal workers I know,” Gates says. The two spent the next few months perfecting the tire bracket and received their patent this past summer. What makes their bracket different from the ones already on the market? “The ones that exist don’t always fit on factory alloy wheels, and this modified version fits all wheels,” Gates says. “This actually works with a flange that bolts behind the wheel, and a shaft comes through the wheel, so you’re not putting any stress on the tire or wheel. You can hold quite a lot there.” But is it safer? Gates says he can answer that from firsthand experience. “We went off-roading in the Rockies, and we almost lost a Jeep off the side of a road, but the spare tire bracket stayed on. It didn’t budge.”

THE FUTURE: JKS, a top manufacturer for off-road Jeep accessories, has already started producing and selling the bracket. Gates says going through the patent process has taught him a lot. “It been a great learning experience,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about patent law nationally and internationally. The Europeans do it differently from the Australians, and the Australians do it differently from the Canadians. I’ve found that when you talk with other people who have been through the patent process successfully, there’s almost a common language between you because they can relate to you in a way that many others can’t.”

THE INVENTORS: Robin Donsky & Tarron Gartner-Ilai

THE LIGHTBULB: These women could be considered “mom-trepreneurs,” a phrase coined to describe a growing group of creative, business-savvy mothers who are finding ways to make a living and stay home with their kids. The two met more than a decade ago and found that they had much in common: Both were single moms, both were attorneys, and both were trying to balance their family lives and careers. “We both were really just looking for something fun to put out in the world and stay home with our kids,” Donsky says.

THE JOURNEY: The pair decided to patent a nail polish applicator with a precise brush that would allow women to paint designs or stripes on their fingernails, similar to the airbrushed style offered at nail salons. The brush includes an interchangeable applicator tip that stamps on shapes and decals. “We saw this as something that could be used by high school cheerleaders because it has a high theme appeal,” Donsky says. “And they’re very easy to use, so you don’t have to worry about having a super-steady hand or lots of skill.” They received a patent in 2000 and are still trying to find a manufacturer. They also patented a wagon-with-a-cooler. That idea was bred from firsthand experience. “At the time, my kids were young, and we always went out to parks or the zoo,” Gartner-Ilai says. “I didn’t like the snack bar food, so I’d always lug a stroller or wagon, plus a cooler of food and drinks. I just thought about how much easier it would be if there was a cooler compartment built right into the stroller or wagon.” The women discovered a similar stroller already existed, so they focused on the wagon idea, which proved a challenge. “They [the patent office] had all these challenges, and for each one we’d have to file more paperwork proving why our idea was valid,” Gartner-Ilai says. “We spent a lot of money and time to get that patent.” After that, the ladies sent the idea to top children’s product manufacturers, but none took the bait. One did, however, produce its own spin off. “It’s been pirated. This wagon does have a compartment, but it’s not a cooler compartment, it’s just a storage compartment,” Donsky says.

THE FUTURE: The women say they’ve learned from their experience and are now wiser for it. “We’ve learned that if you approach a large manufacturer, they’ll simply improve on it and sell it themselves. And we’ve learned there are a lot of empty promises,” Gartner-Ilai says. They have a few more ideas ready to patent, but they’re keeping the details under wraps for now and hoping to find the time to go through the process again. “It’s really hard to work, be a mom, and still find time to get this off the ground,” Donsky says.


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